Test Rugby is finally back after far too long and what a treat we were given as Australia and New Zealand provided us with a thrilling albeit rain soaked encounter in Wellington’s “cake tin”. After being less than slightly inspired by Super Rugby Australia, we were riveted by a Wallaby team that turned up in New Zealand wanting to play, and what’s more play with style. In short what a difference a Coach makes. Unlike the Michael Cheika era, this looked like a cohesive bunch of enthusiastic and talented players who had a pretty good idea of what they were trying to achieve despite the elements and the best efforts of the All Blacks. The proof of the pudding will be at Eden Park this weekend, but for Australian supporters it must have been truly refreshing, and for the rest of us made Australia/New Zealand contests worth watching again!
The long awaited conclusion to the 2019/20 Champions Cup season finally takes place this Saturday as England’s favorite upstart team Exeter have their first shot at lifting the Heineken Cup. Meanwhile France’s Racing 92 make their way to their third final, hoping that “third time’s a charm” really does ring true for them this weekend.
Today we learnt that South Africa will NOT be participating in this year’s rescheduled Rugby Championship. It didn’t exactly come as a surprise but is still regrettable, especially as many of the reasons being cited for it, could also apply to Argentina who still are participating in the tournament. However, we don’t think as some are surmising that it is a further sign that South Africa may be moving North of the Equator to the Six Nations, even if its provincial sides are now joining European competitions instead of Super Rugby.
So with lots to talk about, here are our thoughts on a weekend you are not going to want to miss!
Heineken Cup Final – Racing 92 vs Exeter – Saturday, October 17th – Ashton Gate – Bristol
The weekend kicks off in style with a Heineken Cup final – what more could you ask for? This one should be a cracker. Two very inventive sides meet in Bristol for what should be a highly entertaining match, with plenty of flair from both sides. Two Scottish legends face off against each other in Racing 92’s Finn Russell and Exeter’s Stuart Hogg. The Championship’s top try scorer Exeter’s Sam Simmonds will be on hand to weave his own magic tied to some impressive brute force. England fans will be looking to see Exeter centre Henry Slade continue his run of form, while Racing’s back line has the potential to score tries from anywhere in the park, especially once centre Virimi Vakatawa develops a head of steam.
Racing 92 have been here before but somehow have yet to lift any silverware. Exeter on the other hand are the new kids on the block. Dominating the English Premiership in the last few years, the team’s meteoric rise through the ranks has been impressive to watch. Coupled to some big name signings, this is now a team to be reckoned with and then some. Despite Racing’s lack of success at the Heineken Cup’s final hurdle, they must surely arrive full of confidence after their demolition of a very gritty Saracens side. Will the experience of being at the Heineken’s big show favor Racing or will mavericks Exeter continue to turn heads as they have done all season, and currently remain the only undefeated team in the Championship.
We think up front Exeter should be able to boss the Frenchmen around, though Racing’s Hooker Camille Chat caused all sorts of problems for Saracens in the semi-finals. However, Exeter just looks the more complete unit from 1-8, with better control in the set pieces. With the likes of Jonny Gray and Sam Simmonds in the mix, Racing will really need to keep their composure in the discipline stakes on Saturday.
However, we can’t help feeling that what will really set these two teams apart is the half back combinations, and here we are handing the ball back to Racing. At 9 and 10, Racing have so much pace and imagination in Teddy Iribaren and Finn Russell that they are likely to keep Exeter guessing all afternoon and deny them the kind of platform where the English side’s mastery of the set pieces could prove vital. Racing should be able to force Exeter to constantly have to reset their defensive structures, if Russell and Iribaren are allowed space in which to operate. Given the fact that both have an eye for even the slightest of gaps, Exeter will need to be sharp in covering these two mischief makers on Saturday.
We’d argue the back lines are evenly matched. Whatever Exeter’s Stuart Hogg, Jack Nowell and Henry Slade can do, well Racing’s Vakatawa, Imhoff and Zebo can do too. Nowell and Hogg may be quicker out of the blocks than their French counterparts, but once either Imhoff or Vakatawa have built up a head of steam they are almost impossible to stop, especially the French Fijian who has the potential to carve off huge chunks of Exeter’s midfield defence. If Exeter don’t dominate possession and the set pieces which we’d argue they are well placed to do, then this could end up being a very free flowing game but our money is on the Frenchmen causing the most damage allied to their pair of tricksters in the halfback department.
Two very exciting and evenly matched teams should make for a highly entertaining final on Saturday, and hopefully not the kind of slugfest that finals can often degenerate into. The weather looks set to favor a running game, and the teams boast a host of characters able to provide just that. Impossible to call, but somehow we feel that Racing 92 might just find that at long last – third time around really is lucky!
Bledisloe Cup 2 – New Zealand vs Australia – Saturday, October 17th – Eden Park – Auckland
What a truly remarkable game of Test Rugby last weekend, capped off by an epic final seven minutes! If you’re like us, we were so thrilled that the return of International Test Rugby provided us with such a memorable match.
First off though I think it’s fair to say we owe Australia an apology. We had in many ways written them off before the opening whistle, but they arrived in Wellington determined to play, and one could argue that in many ways they were the better team on Saturday. If Rieko Ioane’s blatant foot in touch in the opening stanzas of New Zealand’s first try had been caught by Australian referee Angus Gardner, then Australia would be travelling to Eden Park tomorrow with a few fingertips already resting lightly on the treasured Trans Tasman Cup.
What really struck us though was what a difference a Coach makes. We make no apologies for harboring a distinct dislike of former Wallaby Coach Michael Cheika whose Trumpesque style of coaching Australia clearly wrought havoc on their fortunes in the Test arena. New Coach New Zealander Dave Rennie, so far seems to be a breath of fresh air. Australia finally looked like they had a game plan, an idea as to how to execute it and a team working as one – qualities which were blatantly absent during the Cheika years. We have been rather puzzled by Australia’s decline, and although we perhaps have not been too flattering about the Wallabies exploits on the field in the last few years, we genuinely miss the class Wallaby sides of the 90s. Let’s face it John Eales still has cult status here at the Lineout as one of the finest the game has ever seen. Consequently, we really liked what we saw last Saturday, and some of Australia’s inventiveness and speed with ball in hand was a joy to watch and long overdue.
However, one swallow doesn’t make a summer as the saying goes. Both sides were clearly rusty and the All Blacks got off to their traditionally slow start, but in terms of both teams fielding new Coaches, you’d have to favor Rennie over the All Blacks Ian Foster. Admittedly anyone would look good after Cheika, but former All Blacks Coach Steve Hansen leaves behind a legacy that many doubt Foster will be able to uphold. Nevertheless, the All Blacks are rarely poor twice and never at Eden Park the site of tomorrow’s encounter.
The weather will be a lot more favorable tomorrow than it was in Wellington and New Zealand are likely to look a lot sharper than they did last weekend. They got bossed around by Australia in the set pieces except at lineout time, where they failed to assert their traditional dominance, had far less possession than Australia and their backs rarely looked assured – and don’t even get us started on Rieko Ioane’s ridiculous showboating which ultimately sees him relegated to the bench for tomorrow’s match. In short, it was a stodgy All Blacks performance, and when was the last time you’ve heard a New Zealand effort described in those terms?
This week though sees the return of key playmaker Beauden Barrett to the fullback position after Damian McKenzie ran around a lot last weekend but actually achieved very little. Rieko Ioane sits this one out on the bench, but to be honest we are not sure he is centre material and it will be interesting to see if, when he does come on, he replaces the out of position Jordie Barrett on the right wing. We are pleased to see Anton Liennert-Brown get a start at center as in our opinion he has been one of New Zealand’s most consistently under rated talents of the last five years. All that aside though New Zealand really need to lead from the front, and the only person who really put in a consistent and admirable showing last weekend was flanker and Captain Sam Cane. Everyone else had flashes of brilliance but the end result was still a disjointed and at times lackluster display. Even New Zealand’s one man version of Hurricane Irma, Ardie Savea, was struggling to make the headlines last weekend.
Australia ring a few changes, and we have to be honest and say that the choice of Ned Hanigan for Pete Samu who did seem to be a weak link in an otherwise impressive Wallaby back row last weekend, doesn’t exactly inspire confidence. However, with Michael Hooper at his absolute best last weekend on the occassion of his 100th cap and Harry Wilson being the Wallaby find of the year, then all is not lost though expect to see New Zealand’s Ardie Savea take it up a few notches this weekend.
Nic White had a blinder of a game last weekend at scrum half for Australia, and fly half James O’Connor has finally come of age. Between the two of them they often made their All Black counterparts Richie Mo’unga and Aaron Smith look irrelevant, despite Smith’s try.
New Zealand’s back line was rarely to be seen last weekend, and centre Jack Goodhue’s new haircut made him almost anonymous, perhaps he needed that mullet after all to be effective? Australia on the other hand were electric in this part of the park. The two wingers newcomer Filipo Daugunu and traditional big gun Marika Koroibete were a nightmare for the Kiwi defences, while the centre pairing of Matt Toomua and Hunter Paisami looked solid. Tom Banks may pale into insignificance against the legendary Beauden Barrett this weekend, but there is definitely some potential in the Wallaby youngster at fullback.
Despite a rather off color performance from New Zealand last weekend, it’s hard to see them coming short two weeks in a row and at the hallowed ground of Eden Park to boot. In short the All Blacks just don’t lose there, and haven’t since 1994 when France managed to catch them off guard. Australia on the other hand haven’t won there in 33 years – 1986 to be precise. This is not a poor All Black team, and let’s face it, one awash with talent. Saturday’s lineup is the kind of fantasy draw for most Coaches. Consequently, Australia need to take the game they played last Saturday and up it by at least another five gears. As impressed as we were by their initial outing last weekend, we sadly fear that a harsh dose of reality is in store for Rennie and his Wallaby charges this Saturday.
Last but not least a special shout out has to go to Reece Hodge for providing the spark for the most remarkable seven minutes of Test rugby we’ve seen in a long time. If ever a rugby player’s facial expressions summed up Australian attitude then Reece Hodge gets the Oscar. The Australian utility back’s boot is the stuff of legend, but that final kick at goal last Saturday in appalling conditions was a tall order and then some. But there’s Hodge who steps up and clearly is thinking “well mate it’s a bit of a long shot, but what the hell let’s have a go!” And what a go he had! The agonizingly near miss off the posts and the resulting seven minutes of frantic rugby it set in motion for both sides will stay in the memory banks for years to come. So in short, well done Reece and any chance of the same again this weekend?
And then there were three – The Rugby Championship
We can’t say we were completely surprised, but we’d be lying if we said we didn’t take the news of South Africa’s withdrawal from this year’s Rugby Championship as a crushing disappointment. Knowing the turmoil, both economic and social that is going on in South Africa at the moment, with COVID-19 as a catalyst, it is probably the right and judicious thing to do, but a Rugby Championship without the Springboks just isn’t the same. Now it’s just the Bledisloe Cup with Argentina on tour in Australia. You could argue that Argentina’s players are facing the same conundrum as South Africa’s squad in terms of game time and exposure to top level rugby, so all the more credit to the South Americans for taking the bold decision to participate. As regular readers of this blog know, we are huge Pumas fans and are really looking forward to seeing them in action again this fall, even if they may not be playing on a level playing field with their Australian and New Zealand counterparts who will be well and truly battle hardened by the time of the Pumas first match with the All Blacks on November 14th.
As for talk of this being the first step in the Springboks ultimate departure from the Rugby Championship in favor of the Six Nations, we think that is simply hot air. Annual fixtures between South Africa and New Zealand are one of the pillars of the global Test calendar, eagerly anticipated and watched by rugby fans around the world. The draw of such matches and the revenue generated is simply too strong to forfeit. South African Super Rugby sides may well now gravitate to European competitions, but South African and New Zealand fans, as well as many neutrals, still regard fixtures between the Springboks and All Blacks as key indicators of who’s who in rugby’s global pecking order. Fans in both countries ultimately judge where their teams are at on the basis of such encounters. In short, we may not get to see it this year, but expect to see South Africa back with a vengeance for the 2021 Rugby Championship unless the Six Nations governing bodies are willing to bankroll the costs of Springbok rugby from now till the next World Cup – which we somewhat doubt.
So everyone have an absolutely outstanding rugby day tomorrow, details on how to watch are all over on the TV listings page. Once again a big shout out to everyone who wrote in to TSN and DAZN last week to remind them that there are a few rather important events happening over the next few weekends in relation to the oval ball. If our so called leading sports networks want to call themselves broadcasters of top flight international sporting competitions (Korean domestic baseball aside) then they have a bit of work to do.